Scrotumgate and the never-ending debate about what words are appropriate for what age groups made me realise something very important: You USians talk funny!

See, in Australia where I grew up the words that some people think you should never say and others use all the time are called “swear words” and the act of using them is “swearing”. Here in the United States of America they are “curse” or even odder “cuss” words and when you say them you are “cursing” or “cussing”.

Both of which sound unbelievably quaint as well as kind of cute to my ears. It’s as if I’ve been chatting with folks who appear to be from the twenty-first century and then—Bam!—all of a sudden a time machine has landed in their mouths, taken control of their tongues, and they can now only say words from the 1700s. “That blasted sea dog cussed at1 me!”

Okaaay, I think, backing away slowly.

And I use words like “hence” which makes many USians think that the time machine’s grabbed my tongue. These fun linguistic differences are why I keep coming back here. Such larks! (Oh, okay, and the fact that my fella is a Seppo. Details, details!)

Here are my favourite USianisms (some are regional; some have spread far beyond her borders):

    Discombobulate (Best. Word. Ever.)

    Copacetic (A fancy word for “okay”. Who knew? So euphonious. Pleasure in my ears!)

    All the myriad different words for a bad sandwich such as “hoagie”, “hero”, “grinder” etc etc

    Sketchy (Meaning “dodgy”—obviously “dodgy” is better than “sketchy” but it still ain’t too foul)

    On line (As in “Are you standing on line?” I’ve only ever heard this one in NYC)

    Burglarize (Hah! I giggle every time I hear it. Scott has the same reaction to “removalist” back home)

Can’t think of any more right now. What are your favourite American words? Am I alone in finding “cuss” antiquated?

  1. Cussed on me? Near me? See? I don’t even know what the right preposition is! []


  1. David Moles on #

    Yeah, I was pretty proud of my Commonwealth-to-American translation sk1llz when I was able to render “dodgy” as “sketchy”.

    There’s a whole lot of made-up words from the mid-19th century along the lines of “discombobulate”. I can’t imagine actually using it in a conversation, but “absquatulate” (“to go off and squat elsewhere”) is one of my favorites.

    I also have a sentimental fondness for “pernally” (“more or less,” “almost” — from “pretty nearly”), although I’ve only ever heard it in southern Illinois and never seen it written down.

    I think we swear here, too, as well as cuss. Maybe it’s a regional thing?

  2. David Moles on #

    (Um, and by “here”, I mean, like, five thousand miles to my left. Silly Internet! Silly Atlantic Ocean!)

  3. Rebecca on #

    hmm. i use hence. and swear (though not as much as cuss. and curse is just lame. makes me think of harry potter, not bad words). and sketchy. i also use “whilst” because it amuses me. all those words are part of my regular usian vocabulary. i dunno, maybe it’s cuz i hang around here so much. i definitely tend to pick up everything from anywhere, if i like it.

    since i’m usian, i’ll list a few of my favorite words from elsewhere: chunder, bloody, chips (as in french fries), brilliant (as in great), bugger, and ‘ken hell. and more. i like “y’all” a lot too, even if it does make me sound like a redneck and does nothing to discourage the texan stereotype.

    “scrotumgate,” hehe. you make me laugh. 😀

  4. molly on #

    We call ’em swear words too. I swear!

    (You aren’t amused by American use of doing instead of going, i.e. “How are you doing?”)

  5. Sir Tessa on #

    I think of ‘cuss’ as being a sort of phoneticasized slang.

    I have never heard of ‘burglarised’ but it made me cackle.

  6. Sherwood Smith on #

    I think “How are you doing” somehow goes back to the use of “fait” coming over the channel.

    “Cuss you out” is how I learned to use cuss, but maybe that’s antiquated.

    “on line” I think must be east coast, as you say–it’s rare here. We stand in line in CA.

    USAisms I love are “you-all” (especially “yawl”), I reckon, butt naked, and my favorite of all (it seems to be falling out of use) was kwitcherbitchin.

  7. Veronica on #

    We use swear too. At least, I do. “Cuss” is more of a southern thing, I always thought, but I could be wrong.

    To be on line is definitely a NYC-specific slang. Obviously, it’s the right way to say it.

    My favorite difference was always that in the US, you run for office, whereas in the UK, you stand for it. I don’t know what you do in Australia. I’m sure that difference signifies something very important about the two cultures, but I’m blowed if I know what.

  8. Emmaco on #

    Cuss does sound old fashioned to my Australian ears. It also has a gentler ring than “swear” – maybe encompassing milder (and older) swear words such as damn.

  9. kate c on #

    in australia, we don’t have the concept of doing anything “for office.” In australia, you just become a politician. after that we don’t care what you get up to, you’re automatically cursed (so to speak) and damned to special politicans’ hell.

    maybe because we don’t have the reverence for public office of usians, or culture of public service that (used to?) exist in the uk. our response to anyone who wants to get into public office is immediate suspicion. maybe.

  10. girliejones on #

    I thought that “copacetic” actually comes from the Hebrew words “kol beseder” which means everything is okay. It’s hard to decipher the Americanised word when it’s used on TV but thats what I thought they were saying.

  11. Meghan on #

    BAD sandwiches? Justine, have you ever been to philly and had a proper hoagie? Or even better, a grinder (they are hot, hoagies are cold)? those sandwiches nourished me in my youth! They are not bad!

    Also, “on line” is exclusively people from New York City and its burbs. I could always tell who came from that area in college b/c they said “on line.”

  12. Carol on #

    I’d heard the Bill “Bojangles” Robinson origin for “copacetic,” but the Straight Dope says this stuff: http://www.straightdope.com/mailbag/mcopacetic.html (possible derivations from Hebrew, Italian, French, Chinook, and something to do with a settee).

    Say, do you say “straight dope” in other parts? Not that I ever hear it while on line in NYC. In Riverdale (northwest NYC) we queue (not “up”) if it’s for the express bus, but are either on line or standing in line for our gyros and subs. How about “settee”? My grandmother always used “settee” in Miami, so in my head a settee is specifically a bright orange couch with World’s Fair and hand-embroidered pillows, and antimacassars on it. I used to say “couch” or “chaise” or “sofa” interchangeably, then my friends and I all started reading Douglas Adams and never spoke right again.

    In fact, my usian has been peppered with ukisms for decades, thanks to the influence of imported West Indian-speak and the inevitable Britcoms on PBS. Now, I think the crazy kids all speak Japanese slang. Crazy kids.

    “Removalist” is a great word. It should be a movie with Pierce Brosnan, or possibly Matt Damon, or someone French with stubble. Or maybe, “The Removalist,” directed by Martin Scorsese. Oscar material.

  13. Karen on #

    Cussed on me? Near me? See? I don’t even know what the right preposition is!

    Cussed *to* you. It’s like a serenade. I toss thee this bouquet of cuss.

  14. Justine on #

    Carol: The Removalists is already a play and movie untainted by the likes of Brosnan and Damon. The idea!

  15. El on #

    Never heard “sketchy” used the way I’ve heard “dodgy” used, but I see from the Urban Dictionary that “sketchy” means the same–just hadn’t reached me in my non-NY suburban cocoon.

    Just googled on “copacetic origin” and nobody really knows for sure where it comes from, but “kol beseder” is a leading theory. (Google rocks!)

  16. Carol on #

    “The Removalists” sounds like something with actual social and literary significance. Everyone knows real movies involve car chases, explosions, and cleavage. Sheesh. Also, Yeesh. And Geez. All of which of course are substitutes for cussin’.

    Thanks to the wiki page I have learned the words “ocker” and “larrikin.” Now I must try to fit them into daily conversation.

  17. veejane on #

    Cursing for swearing is an artifact of our good/bad old Scary Protestant history. When you say a bad word in front of Jonathan Edwards, you are definitely cursed to Hell, do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

    (I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but even today TV shows bleep out “goddamn” but not “damn.” Like, if your brother Moe damns you, it’s okay, but the big guy — whoa!)

    My favorite dialect words are all related to the crazy urban landscape of the early 20th C. — like, whose idea was it to call a woman a tomato!! Much less a doll, a moll, a broad, a dame. Urban moosh words of that era are also grand: helluva and whadyatalk and whatchamacallit.

  18. Skott Klebe on #

    In New England, we use a fair amount of local jargon that doesn’t appear elsewhere:
    – Wicked! (although that now seems to be spreading. As in, Awesome! [probably a general Americanism] or the exact British equivalent, Brilliant! I once overheard a teenage girl say, “Jimmy’s a wicked, wicked, wicked good skateboahdah!” [skateboarder] )
    – tonic (meaning soft drink, like even Coke)
    – directionals (meaning turn signals, the lights on the back of the car that other people are suppose to use)
    Listening for these in the Boston area, you can tell whether a speaker is native, and whether he/she went to college out of state. You stop saying “tonic” pretty quickly as a freshman [“frosh” is probably another Americanism, if a little dated], but you don’t ever lose the accent.

    RE: absquatulate, above. Sometimes people make up words. Sometimes they borrow them
    There’s a family of obsolete borrowings known as “inkhorn terms,” words that were put into English during the 16th century by writers trying to sound cool.
    You like apples? How ’bout them apples:
    deruncinate, adnichilate, illecebrous (which positively cries out to be used), ingent.

    Inkhorn links:

  19. Carol on #

    Skott Klebe: that reminds me of the “Blackadder III” episode in which Edmund is trying to prove the dictionary is incomplete by spouting a series of beautifully polysyllabic, utterly made-up words. Considering the writers on that series, he might have been using “inkhorn terms.” And there’s also, uhm, that episode of “Don’t Shoot Me,” to get a little lowbrow.

    Karen: “cussed to” must be regional. I cuss at you, darnit. I don’t curse too much, because curses, well, that’s an entirely different action, sometimes involving candles and oils. I might implore you not to swear at me, though, which includes just saying “Christ!” or “Jeeeeeeezus!” but maybe not “Jeeezus H Criminey.” By Jove.

    Until they actually fall out of my mouth, it’s hard for me to think of all the localisms. Probably an awful lot of Yiddish words.

    Okay, time for me to leave this poor page alone and get some work done.

  20. Anne on #

    I’m from Michigan and I grew up saying swear rather than curse or cuss. Cuss seems vaguely southern to my ears, who knows why. When I was student teaching I was instructed to use curse instead, as the instructor felt that swear had religious overtones.

    My favorite different-in-the-UK word is crap. Here, I grew up saying that something was crappy, but some of my favorite British writers/speakers would say that something was crap (no y). I’ve totally adopted that because it sounds cooler.

  21. jenny d on #

    oh, seems to me it’s definitely “cussed you out”!

  22. John H on #

    The proper usage would be ‘cussed at you’ or ‘cussed you out’ (as Jenny pointed out). One might even ‘cuss up a blue streak’.

    I grew up in the South, where you got your mouth washed out with soap for cussing.

    And where we would say y’all, my Pennsylvania cousins would say you-uns.

    I’ve heard of burglarized, but it’s not nearly as funny sounding as ‘burgled’.

  23. veejane on #

    Oh, we get to list our favorite Brit weird sayings? I am personally fond of saying that something sucks by saying it is pants.

    There is just something about the sound of the word, pants, that puts across this hilarious aura of disdain.

    Also, I know a woman from Sheffield who describes herself as laughing like a drain when amused. I love that image: the chuckling sound of water down a drain.

  24. Dawn on #

    It cracked me up to read that! I don’t know how many I actually use that often, but I have heard them used quite often. Out here in Kansas, I hear people mainly use “cuss”, but I have heard “swear”. I think when someone wants to sound more sophisticated, then they would use “I couldn’t believe he was swearing at me!” when talking with their friends I would more likely hear “He totally cussed me out!” hee hee. Though, Kansas is pretty strange all on its own. 🙂

  25. Robert Legault on #

    I grew up saying “swear words”; though “cuss words” was certainly familiar to me, I don’t think I ever said it much. And I never even heard “on line” till I moved to NYC: we always said “in line.”

    My favorite New York regionalism is pronouncing “Broadway” as if it were “Broad Way,” i.e. as a spondee, instead of accenting the first syllable.

  26. Veronica on #

    How else would you say “Broadway”?

  27. jenny d on #

    yes, i love that “broad WAY” pronunciation too, it almost sounds as though there’s a question mark afterwards. i notice older people using it more than younger, i hope it does not vanish.

  28. Rachel Brown on #

    other synonyms for sketchy are skanky and scuzzy or, applied to humans who are sketchy but are pretending they’re actually perfect, smarmy.

  29. Scott on #

    Funny how different people see things differently. When I was growing up in Texas, the gentler, Grandma types used the more ladylike word, ‘swear’. Us rough and tumble guys used ‘cuss’. So it’s interesting you have nearly an opposite viewpoint. Cuss is rough. Swear is something you say holding a hankie in front of your dainty mouth.

  30. Ron on #

    I like how in the u.s when you leave an aircraft you are “de-planing” – cracks me up!

    also think it’s funny how when an aussie says “fortnight” in america you get the weirdest reactions! people think you’re being really twee or fey or something. It’s just part of the vernacular here (but we’d probably think someone was being twee or fey if they used “sennight” or “twelvenight” or similar! wonder why “fortnight” endured and the others didn’t?)

  31. PixelFish on #

    Where I grew up in Utah, we called ’em swear words. (And because I grew up in Utah, I adopted a lot of British swears, because after all, nobody got pissed at me for swearing that way. So I could say Bugger or Bloody all I liked, but just try dropping one little “shit”.)

    And for the sandwich, it was hoagie or sub, but never hero or grinder…. (I have never heard of grinders.)

    I’ve used sketchy, skanky, grody, scuzzy, etc.

    One thing my mother used to say a lot was “Vamoose.” I think it’s derived from Spanish somehow, but I have no idea. She’d use it to tell us to get off our butts and get out of the house.

  32. Veronica on #

    “Vamos” means “let’s go” or “we go” in Spanish.

  33. Lewis on #

    My favorite example of nonsensical U.S. English is “[to]
    winterize.” I love British phrase “across the pond.”

  34. Delia on #

    I like “coggywompus” (or “cattywompus”), as in “I can’t lie down with you all coggywompus across the bed.” It’s genuine–I found it in my Dictionary of American Regional English, along with “bumswizzled” (See “hornswoggled”), “cuss-fight,” “cuss-fired” (piss-elegant for “hell-fired”), and (I kid you not) “cussywop,” which is a rural NY term for “dust bunny.” No “cuss,” though

    How I do love dictionaries.

  35. claire on #

    one of my favorite american words is “fanny”, which, of course, is a nice word for “bottom” that you use with children. justine, did you blush when you read it?

  36. Carol on #

    A commercial for a new fruit drink called “PlumSmart” has reminded me of “plumb crazy” and “she’s plumb tuckered out.” Hmm… I clean forgot what I was going to say next…

  37. Naomi on #

    one of my favorite american words is “fanny”, which, of course, is a nice word for “bottom” that you use with children.

    Oh yes. I used that one in my English class in London when I was 13 years old, to mean bottom. Whoopsie. I didn’t get in trouble or anything, there was just this incredible silence. It wasn’t until later that I found out what I’d said. (For my fellow clueless Americans: it’s the British equivalent to “cunt.”)

    My favorite Britishism was “revise,” though. You revised for your exams, rather than studying for them.

  38. Justine on #

    Naomi: No, it really isn’t. Fanny is not a rude or offensive word. It’s young and cuter than that. It’s more like “front bottom”.

  39. Jerome on #

    As an American past ordinary retirement age, I don’t know some things about the usages of the young. But “sketchy” does not have any connotation of dodginess to me: it refers to being like a sketch, which is a certain kind of drawing, i.e. without much detail.

    One speaks of a sketchy description. But the person or corporation or musical performance being described sketchily could be entirely sound; it’s the description that lacks something.

    A hero sandwich (or submarine sandwich) need not be a bad sandwich, and could be an excellent sandwich. It does need to look a certain way, but the quality of the ingredients need not be bad.

    I once bought splendid bread and meat from an Italian delicatessen in London and ate a stupefyingly good hero sandwich in Soho Square. In that long-past year almost any already-made sandwich in London would be bad, but that had to do with insufficient Elizabeth David reading, and English luxury skewed away from good food. They had good wool cloth, though. And good whisky.

    With “burglarize” I am with you, although offhand I don’t know how else to express the idea. Different countries have different infelicities. The English say “pressurise” not to refer to air pressure in an airplane, which is how we Americans would use the word, but referring rather to putting someone under emotional pressure. Or oneself. “I was feeling pressurised.”

    I suspect that “discombobulate” doesn’t have an etymology in the sense of coming from Old French or anything like that, but is a humorous coinage. We are a nation of nations, we never had an established church after the founding of the United States, and authority doesn’t extend very far. Blake may have wanted a new Jerusalem, but we Americans resist looking back even to a notional Jerusalem. We like to invent our own Edens, and invent quirky names for them.

  40. amanda coppedge on #

    “Whole ‘nother” meaning “entirely different.”

    “Why, that’s a whole ‘nother story!” When I stop to think of it, I am surprised how many people use this even in a more formal conversation.

  41. Mary Pearson on #

    ha! “Removalist” sounds so civilized–almost friendly. Makes you almost want to invite a removalist to your home. Do they remove dust bunnies too?

    Have to agree that discombobulate is a lovely word to say and hear.

  42. kate c on #

    what about just plain “burgled”? ditto “pressured.”

  43. John H on #

    Carol mentioned ‘plumb crazy’, which I assume had to do with lead poisoning back when household plumbing still used lead pipes. But I have no idea where ‘bat-shit crazy’ came from…

  44. Nikki on #

    I noticed someone say “yawl” and well it’s really “y’all”. But “yous guys” always made me giggle too from up north.

    I can’t think of any southern (Texas) jargon right now but I’m sure if I do I’ll post again.

  45. josh on #

    Yeh, I don’t see any alternative to “burglarized” either. “Burgled” is a dodgy neologism created by back-formation: treat “burglar” as though it’s a profession based on a verb, like “farmer.” If you let burglars “burgle,” soon doctors will doct and fingers will fing. And what will shoulders do?

    My favorite U.S. regionalisms are food: beef on weck, wooderice, scrapple, chocolate phosphate, ho cake. And yes, Justine, I did have a landlady who used the word “stick-to-it-iveness.”

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